Carew Rice silhouette exhibit at Verdier House hits close to home

Carew Rice's silhouettes will be on display through May 31 at the Verdier House in Beaufort.
Carew Rice's silhouettes will be on display through May 31 at the Verdier House in Beaufort. Submitted photo

Rewards come every day in the nonprofit world, which tell us we are doing "the right thing." The latest affirmation of the Historic Beaufort Foundation doing the right thing came Saturday when the exhibit "The Art of Carew Rice: Silhouettes of the Lowcountry" opened at the Verdier House.

The one-of-a-kind exhibit, which is hung exclusively at the Verdier House for the next four months, opens our eyes to experience our everyday landscapes in new ways and provides a glimpse into the soul of an uncommon, self-taught artist, Carew Rice (1899-1971). The affirmation for the foundation is that we are clearly fulfilling our educational mission in taking this opportunity to present "artifacts of ... cultural interest" that are so vital to understanding our past.

Some might think silhouettes are a ho-hum topic and question what's educational about such a show, but visitors will immediately realize this isn't just a bunch of profiles. The works are magic; they defy understanding of how a person can use his hands in such miniscule tasks. They defy physics. And they illustrate a Southern way of life that has largely disappeared while celebrating Lowcountry landscapes that are timeless.

Carew Rice grew organically out of the soil and pluff mud of his native Lowcountry. As he grew, he absorbed the finest details of nature and the faces of people around him -- including elderly African-Americans who had once been slaves on his grandfather's farm. One day in 1930, he bought his first pair of 25 cent scissors and cut "a billy goat and a jay bird." He has written that he "knew right then that I had found the thing I had been longing and seeking to find: a way to clearly and definitely, and most of all, quickly, express my ideas in art."

Rice traveled the South "cutting" at county fairs, civic and social events, and he created a following of the who's-who among South Carolina families in what he called "gem towns and cities in my brave little state." Although he captured the nuances of the human body in silhouette, it is his landscapes that set him apart from all other American silhouettists, perhaps because, as he wrote, he was " sympathy tuned to the all out-of-doors."

Since news of the exhibit has spread, a score of Beaufortonians have come forward to say they have samples of Rice's work from the first half of the 20th century. Others, unfamiliar with Rice's work, have asked, "If Rice is so renowned, why are the pieces seldom seen on the market?"

The answer? If your family has a Rice silhouette, you have a cherished piece of Southern history you will never sell.

Now, at the Verdier House, visitors can see what Rice family members cherish: more than 60 silhouettes of Lowcountry flora, fauna and faces created as if by magic.

Adding to the experience will be a demonstration by Rice's grandson, Clay Rice, who carries the family artistic gene. Clay Rice will cut silhouettes for the public by appointment from noon to 3 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Verdier House. Later that afternoon, from 3:30 to 4 p.m., he will demonstrate the cutting art and perform original ballads by his grandfather and himself in the program "The Art of Scissor Cutting, Accompanied by Story & Song."

Because of the beneficence of the Rice family here in Beaufort, the Beaufort Historic Foundation is privileged to display these iconic Lowcountry images. The exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday through May 31. Admission is free to foundation members, $10 for nonmember adults and free to children. Call Sandy Patterson at 843-379-6335 to schedule group tours.